• Rethinking Higher Education

    Peter Smith's take on opportunity and access in higher education, the unmet challenges that remain, and the future that lies ahead for those willing to tackle it.

From Sorting to Success: Just Practices in Lifelong Learning and Work

Traditional notions of quality in postsecondary learning have underserved low-income Americans and people of color, and we need a new approach.

August 19, 2020
 

Over the last two dozen blog posts or so, I’ve been writing about what has and hasn’t worked in American higher education, how we got where we are, who is not getting served, why, and what we can do about it. My underlying argument is that the forces that are disrupting the traditional model, accelerated by the pandemic and the recession, have the potential to serve people who have not, for many reasons, benefited from that model.

Whether intentional or not, one of the major consequences of the traditional academic model has been a sorting function in which lower-income people and people of color were disproportionately ignored, excluded by life situation or failed academically. And most “vocational” routes were dead ends serving those who couldn’t benefit from college as it was structured.

This has been a result of the historic definition of academic quality based on the Northern European canon of intellectual thought in philosophy, literature, science and art. That understanding of the liberal arts and arts and sciences has dominated higher education’s definition of quality to the exclusion of other cultural traditions and postsecondary purposes. In so doing, it institutionalized the notion of “elite” higher education. So, state universities were believed to be of lower quality than elite private colleges but better than community colleges, and so on and so forth.

In my posts, I have walked through the incredible progress that we made from the GI Bill into the early years of the 21st century. I then described how a maturing system with rapidly increasing costs and questionable employment results began to max out in its ability to serve traditional populations, let alone those who were still not being served. And, as the traditional-aged college-going population leveled out in numbers and the needs of older learners began to become more critical, two things became apparent.

First, for all its extraordinary success in expanding access to previously unserved populations over the years, the postsecondary community also sorted out approximately 40 million learners who had some college but no degree or certificate. And, when combined with those people who had a high school degree but no college, the sorting/exclusion function was creating a two-tiered society, economically and socially, with income and race as primary determinants.

Second, the very forces disrupting traditional higher education also carried the potential to serve those who had previously been sorted out or blocked from ever participating in higher education.

The underlying assumption has been that not everyone is ready for postsecondary education. But in my experience, there are people of tremendous potential and talent who had the talent but were not ready for the traditional approach to college. The terms “poorly served” or “excluded” students suggest that we have been failing learners because of our practices and assumptions; that with best and just practices we can significantly improve on the outcomes of an assumption-driven, outdated and systemically discriminatory model.

My next few posts will attempt to describe the principles, functions and practices that collectively comprise the framework to organize a best practice learning process that is also just.

In general, I will not be describing institutional examples or specific applications or platforms. I believe there will be many organizational models supporting lifelong learning and work as the space develops. They will include alliances, partnerships, consortia and formats designed to serve the needs of a particular population or circumstance. But, if our purpose is to serve those who have been systematically failed and excluded historically, best and just practices must successfully and qualitatively serve those people and address their needs.

The framework described in my next few posts is only a beginning. There will be much more to come as we learn what works to deliver validated, quality learning results with these previously excluded people. So, the framework contains a collection of practices, attitudes, data uses, technology and philosophy, which, taken collectively, change the rules and level the playing field for those populations previously affected by systematic discrimination.

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